The Making of THE REAL RILEY MAYES: Inventing a Character

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Hello! This is the first of four blog posts about the making of THE REAL RILEY MAYES, a graphic novel for kids. This post focuses on inventing a character.

In the opening pages of THE REAL RILEY MAYES, Riley doodles her favorite comedian on her homework, suggests off-the-wall football plays at recess, and stabs herself with a marker in protest during class. To the reader, her character emerges quickly. But it actually took months and years to create Riley.

I keep a sketchbook, and I try to draw every day. I’m not someone who thinks that a person must draw every day to be a “good artist.” I’m just a person who will go bat-crap crazy if you put me in quarantine with no drawing supplies. I must draw to be happy.

Around 2015, a first grade girl started appearing in my sketchbook. She played with dump trucks and ninja toys; she imagined herself as a cowboy with 5-o’clock shadow, and she did her own hair in a dude-ish cut. As I drew her more and more, she started to talk in speech balloons and think in thought clouds.

Soon, I was drawing multi-paneled scenes from her life, such as the series below: a red-marker death scene at the front of the classroom. I slid these into my portfolio, hoping I’d score a picture book illustration gig. Art directors were confused. “Picture book readers wouldn’t get this,” they’d say, “toddlers don’t really know what death is.”

In 2016, I aged this same character up for a middle grade audience, named her ROBIN, and tried drafting a graphic novel. To be honest, I wasn’t sure what I was doing. There were a few examples to look at, such as SMILE and EL DEAFO. Mostly, I just freewheeled page after page of this character’s shenanigans on graph paper from the grocery store. I didn’t know- maybe I didn’t care? – about plot.

When I queried the book, rejections included words like “hyperactive” and “overstimulating” and possibly even “fever dream.” I don’t know exactly, because I deleted them from my email.

The result? A very vivid character, and a very messy draft. When I queried the book, rejections included words like “hyperactive” and “overstimulating” and maybe even “fever dream.” I don’t know, because I deleted them from my email. At one point in the story, ROBIN dreams she’s flying in jetpacks with her favorite tv comedian, meeting up with a friend and her robot crush, before being dragged away by a boyband member on a date. This main character had a very vivid imagination, and it was getting out of control. Fortunately, agent Susan Hawk saw some potential, accepted my query, and helped me rein things in.

Part of this reined-in revision involved writing and drawing “artifacts” from ROBIN’s backpack: homework, principal’s notes, fantasy maps, notes to a potential friend, and of course, a letter to her favorite TV comedian. When I drew these “artifacts”, I used my non-dominant hand. Scroll through the slideshow below to see them for yourself.

A few of the creations above snuck into THE REAL RILEY MAYES. Most are on the “cutting room floor”, and that’s okay. Through them, I was able to contain RILEY’s imagination within certain spaces, without squashing or holding back her true character. Just like a great photo might crop off part of a beautiful person, the story in a book does not show everything… and it shouldn’t. So, if you’ve got a vivid character in mind, don’t be afraid to let them go overboard… you can always crop and edit their “performance” to the best parts later on.

THE REAL RILEY MAYES is a graphic novel for readers 8-12. Funny and full of heart, it’s a story about friendship, identity, and embracing all the parts of yourself that make you special. Click here to order from your local indie bookstore 🙂

What Happened at “The Real Riley Mayes” Book Events in Oklahoma

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My debut graphic novel THE REAL RILEY MAYES is set in Oklahoma. See that tell-tale sky blue flag on the cover? I grew up there, and it was a joy to draw little slices of life from my home state into this book. There are Chevy Silverados in the drop-off circle, mullet haircuts with no irony whatsoever, and frito chili pie in the school cafeteria. There’s also LGBTQ+ characters in the book. Sometimes Oklahoma’s lawmakers are hostile to LGBTQ+ issues and rights, but Oklahomans in general are supportive, and there’s a lot of queer community to be found… in the book, and in real life. Last week I got to visit my home state for four stops on a quick book tour. Here’s the amazing people and places I got to visit:

First up- I spoke on a panel titled “Banning Queer Books” at UCO’s International Gender and Sexuality Studies Conference in Edmond, OK. There’s a lot of energy on campus. University of Central Oklahoma’s BGLTQ+ Student Center provides three times the support of most centers at similar colleges, with half the budget. The Center, as it’s affectionately dubbed by students, has a lending library, a food pantry, a health clinic, and free clothing for job interviews. The Center also scored an impressive grant to digitize a large collection of historic queer print publications from Oklahoma and beyond. At the panel, I shared pages from Chapter 8 of THE REAL RILEY MAYES, where a safe-search filter smothers Riley’s curiosity about her sexuality. OKC Councilman James Cooper described and explained how important it is for queer people to make and protect access to their own libraries. Tamya Cox TourĂ©, director of ACLU Oklahoma, inspired our mostly 21-and-up audience to stand up for kids’ freedom to read.

It was a treat to connect with family members in each stop. In Edmond, I got to catch up with my aunt, uncle, and cousin’s family, including her son Eli. Eli told me his favorite parts of THE REAL RILEY MAYES, (where Aaron puts Riley on his bike and rides to his dads’ house) and I told him mine (where Riley tells her brother she has a celebrity crush on Joy Powers, and he crunches on a chip and says “duh.”)

Then we drove from Edmond to Stillwater, OK to meet with the students of OSTEM– “Out in STEM”- at Oklahoma State University. The orange cowboy boot cookies were very tasty. We talked about making books for young people, as well as representation, visibility, and mermaids. Helen, a retired OSU librarian, had some great words of wisdom regarding book bans – “this is America and everyone has the right to read what they want.”

My third stop, and the one closest to my heart, was my hometown. The Pryor Book Exchange is run by Chris Hardy (pictured in the gallery above rubbing his chin and possibly thinking about a joke.) Chris is a great guy. He knows all his Mayes County customers, and orders books with specific customers in mind. During the height of the pandemic, he delivered books by bicycle. He stocks an impressive amount of books by Native and Indigenous authors, for kids and adults. The weekend of my visit coincided with homecoming and class reunions, so the store was busy with former teachers and students. They took home free “Say Gay” postcards and LGBTQ+ book discussion guides. It was a joy to share this book with the people who taught me to draw and write stories. That night, my folks had a party in the yard with barbecue and banana pudding.

Finally, I was honored to be a guest at the Oklahoma Equality Center in Tulsa. The rainbow lights of the Lynn Riggs Theatre make any author look spectacular! Deana Stafford McCloud (a pro music historian and exhibit curator, btw) and first-grader Claudia asked compelling questions about THE REAL RILEY MAYES. Questions like: “Did you anticipate some amount of backlash to a book with these themes?” and “How long did it take to make?” and “Why are there hearts on the cover?” (I’ll let you guess who asked which questions.) The Oklahoma Equality Center is adding hundreds of books for kids and teens to their Rainbow Library. Click here to find out more, or donate!

I am very thankful for this trip, and grateful to everyone who came out to support the book. I saw some friends and family that I hadn’t gotten to connect with in years (darn covid!) I felt a lot of love, and I love y’all right back. Everywhere I went, I met folks of all backgrounds – city councilmen, librarians, booksellers, teachers, activists, students, kids, youth pastors – committed to making books accessible to their community. Right now, places like Oklahoma are described in the headlines as places where books are being banned. For every book that’s challenged in my home state, there’s hundreds of people determined to protect our freedom to read.

REAL RILEY MAYES book signings and talks in Oklahoma

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My debut graphic novel THE REAL RILEY MAYES is set in Oklahoma. I grew up there, and it was a joy to draw little slices of life from my home state into this LGBTQ+ book for kids. So I’m thrilled to come back to Oklahoma for three stops on a little book tour! If you’re in Oklahoma, come say hello!

SEPT 30: I’ll be on a panel “Banning Queer Books” at University of Central Oklahoma’s International Gender and Sexuality Studies Conference in Edmond. The panel is at 1:15 in Constitution Hall at UCO. There will be a REAL RILEY MAYES book signing afterwards, and free postcards for everyone!

OCT 1: I’ll be signing copies of THE REAL RILEY MAYES, and giving out free postcards, at the Pryor Book Exchange and Bible Bookstore in my hometown of Pryor, Oklahoma. I’ll be there 1pm-3pm. While you’re in town, don’t forget to swing by Sandusky’s Market for some jam (the edible kind and the musical kind!)

OCT 2: I’ll be talking about the making of THE REAL RILEY MAYES at Magic City Books in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Come ask a question! Pick up free postcards, and browse a scrapbook of behind-the-scenes sketches. 2pm at Magic City Books.

Printable SAY GAY and BIG FAN Real Riley Mayes Postcards

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Since Riley uses the U.S. Mail to contact her favorite TV comedian, I drew and designed these postcards. I bring them with me to book signings for THE REAL RILEY MAYES. Want some of your own to mail to your fave celeb, LGBTQ organization, your friends, or even your enemies? Here are two downloadable, printable color PDF files to make your own RILEY MAYES postcards. It works with Avery 8387 postcards, or you can print them on standard 8.5 x 11 cardstock and cut them yourself.

New Stuff in the Color Illustration Portfolio

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If you click on PORTFOLIO and then COLOR ILLUSTRATION, you’ll find some new work! These are all mixed media pieces. There’s a little bit of correction going on in Photoshop, but most of what you see is true to the original illustration on paper.

The Great Heron.

Watercolor, colored pencil, and brushmarker with pigment-based ink on watercolor paper.

Snow Shovelling

Watercolor, colored pencil. brushmarker with pigment-based ink on watercolor paper.

Zeb and Bel

Watercolor, colored pencil, alcohol marker, brushmarker with pigment-based ink on watercolor paper.

Dip Pens

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Photos of famous cartoonists always show them holding a dip pen. Alison Bechdel uses dip pens. Charles Schulz loved a particular dip pen nib so much, when the company was shutting down, he bought up the remaining nibs (or so the story goes) and now the nibs he stockpiled get auctioned off on Ebay.

When it comes to dip pens, I’m less like Charles Schulz and more like Charlie Brown.

strip shared via the charles schulz museum account on twitter: https://twitter.com/schulzmuseum/status/1165625000864428034?lang=fr

I drew the line art for my graphic novel, The Real Riley Mayes, with brush markers. They’re disposable brush markers called “Fudemoji” made by Pentel. The ink is similar to sumi ink. It dried quickly on the page, and held up to alcohol markers, which I used to color the pages. It took over a year to make all the pages for the graphic novel. By the end of making all that art, I really want to try some new tools. Plus, I have… a lot… of plastic marker bodies leftover… probably enough to make a plastic lawn chair? That’s embarrassing.

So, for the next few blog posts, I’ll share my Awkward Adventures in Art Tools! Starting with dip pen nibs, and a thick black permanent ink called Deleter #4.

When I’m not using a nib, I put in in a Dr Pepper bottlecap. There is no reason for this behavior.

After about a week or two of practice, here’s my very limited advice regarding dip pens:

  • If you don’t want the pen to sound like an orthodontist scraping dental cement off your teeth, sand the nib a bit using the very-very-super-fine sandpaper that comes with it.
  • Wear black clothes, unless you wanna look like you just changed your car’s air filter
  • Dip up to the hole in the nib, but not past there. The little hole holds the ink so you can draw longer.
  • Rinse the nib every 2-3 dips, especially if using waterproof ink. Otherwise, the ink dries on there, and the dried ink blops up all the little engraved lines that help the ink flow, and it will drip on the page.
  • Remember to breathe air in and out. Of your nose. Or your mouth. I’m not picky.

Here’s some line art I made with the dip pen and Deleter ink. It’s a great heron. The GREATEST heron.

Meet The Real Riley Mayes May 3, 2022

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Back in 2015, I started drawing an elementary-aged girl who played with tonka trucks, acted out death scenes with markers, and chopped off her blonde ponytails. The character began to talk and interact with other characters in my sketchbook. Before long, I had several pages of comics about this kid. Years later, my agent Susan Hawk helped me revise the story into a graphic novel, which has been sold at auction to Donna Bray at Balzer+Bray / HarperCollins. THE REAL RILEY MAYES will be available on May 3, 2022.